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Israel's place in the region

Dialogue no. 8, July 2007, between Dan Schueftan and Sasson Somekh


Somekh: The question we address today is not actually a matter of geography. Geographically, Israel is part and parcel of the Middle East. Rather, we are talking about the psychological, political and ideological aspects of the problem and how we have to make Israel a part of the Middle East in the eyes of both the Arabs and the Israelis.

The Arab world still has not internalized the idea that Israel as a Jewish national state resides in its midst in the Middle East. There are extreme positions on that issue. The question as far as I'm concerned as an Israeli is, are we ready to be part of the Middle East? Are we willing? After 1967, after the Six-Day War, the elements that are not ready to be flexible toward the Middle East, to accept being a part of it, became stronger in Israel, e.g., Gush Emunim and others who want all of Eretz Yisrael for the Jewish people and refuse to compromise. They are prepared to fight other Israelis over this with no consideration for Israel's place in the region. The only prime minister willing to be flexible with the Arabs, Yitzhak Rabin, a national hero, was assassinated precisely over this issue. Paradoxically, this never happened to the Arabs. Recently I've been hearing that Sadat was assassinated over his dealings with Israel. That's not true at all.

Rabin was the prime minister who accepted the argument that we have to be more generous vis-a-vis the Palestinians because there is a kind of scale: if we're intransigent they get more intransigent as well; unless we're more flexible they won't be more flexible. That's the kind of logic I believe in. Instead many among us say, if we give up much of what we "gained" in the Six-Day War, who can assure us that we'll get peace in return? Having been in a situation where it didn't work, when violence broke out again, this makes Israelis dubious about giving up something for peace. They feel the Arabs are intransigent, that we are going to be cheated.

How are we going to solve the problem? Israel knows it's a very difficult situation, there's no simple solution. I think it's a matter of patience on our side. The Arabs feel we cheated them, we took this territory without their consent and they don't want us here. What can we do to make them agree to have us here?

This is not going to last forever. There is no other way but for us to think in the long term--I don't know how long, certainly not overnight--about how to open a window of opportunity. How do we approach the kind of situation where Palestinians become more intransigent, like what's happening now in Gaza?

If you want me to suggest a comprehensive solution, I can't, I'm not good enough. We have to agree to a solution that does not endanger our being here. So there has to be some kind of security, some kind of future opening that will develop over years and decades into a "total neighborhood" with us and the Arabs. It has to be a part of the ideology of the ruling system. There is no way of stopping violence with more violence. Military superiority might be useful for a while. You can say Egypt and Jordan have accepted us and maybe Saudi Arabia is having second thoughts. You can say they wouldn't have accepted us had we not fought back; that some of these Arab states accepted us, reluctantly though it may be, because we have an army; that if it weren't for that they wouldn't have thought of making peace with us.

I know this argument, but nevertheless I still don't accept it as a final definition of the situation. We have to be strong, of course, but we have to be absolutely ready for peace. They did come with the intention of making peace with us in the last 20-30 years and Ehud Barak and others didn't know how to deal with them.


Schueftan: I think we should discuss the question of Israeli integration into the Middle East not only geographically but also politically and culturally, in light of what we Jews originally expected this to provide. Most of the Jewish expectations were frustrated to a point where I think today the motivation for integration is to a large extent gone. Let me mention five important points of expectations and then speak at length about why and how they were frustrated. The first point was of course that if we integrated and found our place culturally and politically, the Arabs would accept the establishment and permanent presence of a Jewish nation-state in the Middle East. This is where the quest for normalization comes from. For a long time, Israelis wanted not only peace but also normalization. The assumption was that if they know us they will accept us and the reason they don't accept us is that they don't know us.

The second point, and here I agree with Sasson Somekh, is that of course it would be helpful to have a regional framework, a regional bloc in which Israel can find its place. The third point was that Jews believed they had a lot to offer to this region and were eager to offer it, saying here we are, we can give the Arabs the benefit of our experience and they of course will be grateful.

The fourth point I think is particularly interesting. There was this romantic notion even before the establishment of the state, in the 1920s, that there was an underlying cultural affinity between Jews and Arabs because we had come back to our homeland while the Arabs had preserved the original way of life of our forefathers that we lost in Europe. There was this romantic notion that the encounter with the Arabs would help us to again find our authentic biblical identity. Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the second president of Israel and his wife Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi even believed that the Arabs of Palestine were the descendents of the Jews who under Arab occupation had lost their Jewish identity and maybe we could restore it.

Somekh: It wasn't extreme. There were many people who believed it.

Schueftan: Not only could we find our place here, but this is "us": we can learn from the Arabs how to gain back what we lost in exile, namely the link to the land, to this region where our nation emerged. There was this belief that we can really find our forefathers in the Arab and particularly Bedouin way of life. This was evident in the art of Betzalel [academy of art founded in the pre-state period] where they brought back the image of Moses and our forefathers; we now know they photographed Arabs and took their features. It's the Bedouin, not the urban half-westernized Arab elite.

Of course, this can be linked to romantic notions in nineteenth century Europe of the noble savage, of returning to real uncorrupted values. If you want a specific fascinating example, take Moshe Smilansky and the Hawaja Mousa stories of the romantic Arab. When I read them it immediately reminded me of Karl May. We were looking for authenticity. We saw this in the Palmach, not only wearing kafiyes and riding horses, but the Palmach introduced a lot of Arab words into the vernacular to make us, like the Arabs, really part of this land.

The fifth expectation is a more practical issue, an economic bloc. Both sides can benefit from a symbiotic economy, we will deliver and they will supply or vice versa, to everyone's mutual benefit. So these were the five basic points. All were very seriously frustrated.

First, we know today that practically all the Arab elites and political establishments, even those who have grudgingly accepted the existence of the state of Israel for the time being, with the sole exception of the Hashemites, did not really accept the Jewish national collective as a legitimate part of the Middle East. We expected that once we gradually addressed the major political problems, then hatred and animosity would also subside because they would understand that we are essentially benevolent, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with us. We found that not only has the virulent hatred and even blatant anti-Semitism not been reduced by the peace process and peace agreements, they were actually deepened and institutionalized.

Take Egypt. If you compare the Egyptian intelligentsia today to the Nasserite period, you have more hatred and more blatant anti-Semitism than you had at the peak of the confrontation between Israel and Egypt. Peace and the restoration of the territories Egypt lost in 1967 not only didn't bring acceptance, they brought more resentment. The idea was, you Israelis imposed peace on us Arabs because you're strong and we're weak--strength not just in the military sense, but a strong modern society, successfully coping with the challenges of the twenty-first century. So we resent this and hate and envy you even more.

Look at conspiracy theories that are so prevalent in the Arab world today, some unbelievably ridiculous, such as that the Mossad is distributing chewing gum in Egypt that brings out the lust in women and thereby corrupts Arab society. Conspiracy theories are prevalent in the elite. The more educated are more susceptible to the kind of primitive anti-Semitism that we thought was over in the 1940s. The assumption that if they only knew us they would accept us did not exactly prove to be true.

And of course those who know us the best, the Palestinians, hate us no less, sometimes more then others. And I'm not speaking about what an Israeli and a Palestinian can say to each other when they meet privately. I'm speaking about what Arabs teach their children, say in public (if you don't say it in public, it doesn't matter), usually, the better they know us the more they envy and resent us.

Arabs came to see the idea of normalization as a prize they give to Israel, asking what will you give us in return. Israelis are no longer obsessed with normalization and don't want to pay exorbitantly for it.

Concerning the second point, I do agree it would be more convenient to find a regional context for Israel, but if it's not available we'll find other frameworks, and today in global society this is not as difficult as it used to be because so many frameworks can be virtual, not physical.

The third element concerns what we can offer to the Arabs and how grateful we expect them to be when we help them deal with their problems. Even when the Arabs rejected this, some of us continued to insist that it's very important. You have Shimon Peres and Shimon Peres and the Peres institute and so on. But most Israelis don't get up in the morning and ask what can we give the Arabs and how grateful will they be. If they feel humiliated and we no longer expect anything, let's forget it.

The fourth point, this romantic notion, is particularly fascinating; it's no longer there. We don't need the Arabs to restore the authenticity of our bond with the land. First, it's there already without the Arabs' help; second, it's not the kind of bond we want. Here there's no real distinction between the Gush Emunim people on the right and the, what have you, Peace Now doesn't exist any more, on the left. Both don't need the Arabs in order to be committed to being a Jew in Israel. Very few are looking to the Arabs as an inspiration for authenticity. The settler community, that particularly stresses this need, certainly doesn't long to be like the Arabs; they want nothing to do with them. So the romantic notion isn't there. The noble savage doesn't excite anybody except [Haaretz writer] Gideon Levy and maybe a few individuals on the lunatic fringe of the left. What is more important, many mainstream Israelis consider the Arab world, with or without justification, as backward, primitive, violent and with values that are often not only not appealing, but even repelling, e.g., totalitarian regimes, attitudes toward women, etc.

My last point here is that in Israeli society every public opinion poll I know finds that only a small minority of Israelis want to be culturally associated with the Arab world and only a small portion of Jews who came from the East are interested. They want more western elements in their culture. The kind of Arab world one could have nostalgia for, and here I'm delighted to be speaking with Sasson Somekh, having read what you write about your youth, this world isn't there any more, this open, pluralistic, Levantine-in-the-good-sense-of-the-word world that you used to have in Alexandria and Baghdad and other places, isn't there any more. In the 1950s and 60s, Arab nationalism killed it. If I want Alexandria of old I will not find it in the Arab world today.

Concerning the economic point, there is no basis for major cooperation, first because the only kind of hi-tech that we excel in producing and that Arabs want to import is weapons. So what we want to sell they don't buy, and what they have and we could use, I don't think we should want from them, namely cheap labor. What the Arabs have is mainly oil and cheap labor. They don't have much else. Oil we can buy anywhere. Cheap Arab labor is dangerous because it will produce a situation where on top of a national conflict you have a second story of a socio-economic class conflict: they provide cheap labor and we provide hi-tech, finance and marketing; 95 cents of every dollar go into our pocket and they feel we have cheated them and built our wealth from the sweat of their brow. That's the last thing we need. So in this category there is no good basis for cooperation.


Somekh: I agree with most of Dan Schueftan's points, and especially his description of the psychological element and cultural elements at play between Arabs and Jews. I think he skillfully described the romantic notion of the Arabs as noble savages. I agree that we no longer regard the Arabs as models in any way. In the past they were the model, Muslim-Arab culture was the model, but no longer. Nevertheless, with all the frustration on the Israeli side, what you're saying adds up to "no", we have no Arab neighbors, forget about them: politically speaking, we have no Arab neighbors and can have nothing to do with them. On that point I totally disagree with you. First, we live in the Middle East and will stay here, like it or not. We have to find a way to live here peacefully and with honor and freedom. I can't accept us becoming a part of Europe and America. You might say this has to do with my background, I come from this part of the world and share its culture, so I don't want to part company with this region. We Israelis have to be aware of the sensitivities of Arabs as people different from us on crucial points and to deal with this accordingly. We simply can't forget we are going to stay here forever, even if I have no master plan how to solve the problem. We have to take this issue seriously, not to say no, they disappointed us, so let's ignore them, we don't need them. They are our neighbors.

I never thought the Arabs felt we should be grateful to them for agreeing to peace and normalization. I don't agree to that. On the other hand, my country keeps saying we have to give them reasons to think differently. I don't want to reeducate the Arabs, that's not the point. Rather, we have to work by example and by continued insistence on resilience and on sitting with them, even when they don't want us.

Apropos Alexandria, a friend of mine, an Iraqi writer who lives in London, Khaled Kishtayni, wrote that Iraq should offer to take back the Iraqi Jews and give them good conditions. I wrote him that this is a noble idea, but there are no such Jewish Arabs. I am the very last Arab Jew. My language is still Arabic and my culture is Arabic but my children don't speak Arabic, 70-80 percent of the second generation of Arab Jews don't. We are the last generation of Arab Jews who lived with Arabs and speak Arabic and learned Arabic literature. Kishtayni's is a noble idea but it's not practical at all.

The economic basis: I agree with you that what we can give the Arabs they don't want and what they want we can't sell them. But that doesn't mean that there is no economic dimension to our being neighbors. We have Arab workers working here, Israeli businesses operating in Egypt and Jordan. I know from living in Egypt for several years that they're not so easily convinced by propaganda about us. Yes, there's anti-Semitism, but not every educated Egyptian believes all the troubles in the world are caused by Jews. They don't accept all these lies.

Take the chewing gum story. When I was in Egypt I put a bowl of colorful Israeli chewing gum balls--the ones the Egyptians claimed were from the Mossad actually came from Spain--on my desk and offered them to Egyptian visitors to test their sense of humor.


Schueftan: By the way, if you have some of this chewing gum left I'd like some.


Somekh: At first they were taken aback, but then they of course laughed, like all Egyptians who appreciate a good joke. We didn't do any planning in the economic field that takes into account the psychological effects of our actions. We offered many negative stereotypes; we didn't offer very many opportunities. Future planners need a strategy for peace. If I take your "ideology" of distancing ourselves from our neighbors, there won't be any Israelis left here. Why should Israelis stay here without peace, with no confidence in their neighbors? Palestinian Arabs already constitute 20 percent of the Israeli population, a figure that is rising. So we can't accept a situation where we don't take the Arabs into account and simply do whatever we want. We may live according to our belief in science and progress and logical solutions, but we need peace. Again, I remind you that in Israel there is no freedom of action for leaders who are willing to make peace. I'm sorry to say this. Gush Emunim and the "hill youth" will not allow this to happen. So we don't have to make the Arabs responsible for everything. I'd agree they're responsible for 75 percent of the difficulty, but 25 percent or so falls on us.

Also, Arab intransigence is not necessarily a constant. When we had Sadat's initiative in 1977, the Egyptian people made a different impression on us. They didn't fall in love with Zionism, but we saw them rejoicing and happy, despite Arab propaganda about this frightening thing called Israel. There's no way but to set up a kind of strategy for peace, but without accepting the romantic vision. We have to start from a different point of departure. We face an Arab world that doesn't like us and only wants to crush us. We have to take advantage of the basic instinct of the human race that people want to live in peace and don't want wars. They want us to disappear but they are also suffering. We have to take it into account; there is no other way.

Schueftan: I agree these are our neighbors and that we have to live with the Arabs. And I'm also aware that we should be cognizant of their sensitivities. But the question is, where is it taking us? Let me first respond to a question that is not in the mainstream of my argument but is very important, and has to be taken off the table, namely, will the Jews stay here even if there is no peace with the Arabs. You cannot make our being here dependent on the good will of the Arabs.


Somekh: The issue is about whether Israelis are giving up on peace.

Schueftan: Mainstream Israelis have given up on peace for the foreseeable future. Public opinion polls today say that 70 percent of Israelis believe that even if the Arabs sign a peace treaty with us they will still seek to undermine our very existence. This is unpleasant but we have to come to terms with it. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter and we live in a hostile environment. When you look at what's happening among the Arabs themselves you realize that to expect the Arabs to treat us better than they treat one another is unrealistic. To give a recent example, when Palestinians are butchering each other in the Gaza Strip, you can't expect them to leave us alone. I don't think that many Israelis today miss this important point: that this region is violent and structurally unstable, and therefore to expect in the middle of all this turmoil the emergence of an island of harmony between Jews and Arabs is ludicrous.

Now, in the 1990s I would have agreed with you that many Israelis expected peace. I kept telling them they don't know where they're living. But today most Israelis have come to terms with the absence of peace, and our existence definitely doesn't depend on the good will of the Arabs or the acceptance of the Arabs. Also, if people don't want conflict and terrorism in Israel they can always find tranquility in the New York Twin Towers or relax in Bali where terrorism is unimaginable, or enjoy Madrid where I strongly recommend the train service.

Wherever you go in the world, violence may find you, often perpetrated by Arabs and Muslims. Sometimes this is not recognized as a political challenge. Some people, in particular the Europeans, tend to disregard this reality, trying to create their own Disneyland. But when 28,000 cars are burning in France, Parisians are also reminded that their city may have a structural problem involving Arabs and not just "youngsters".

But this is not the main question we should be discussing in this context. The question is not, do we accept that we live among Arabs and have to take into account their attitude. I accept that this is an unfortunate reality. Rather, the question is one of integration: do we want to become politically and culturally a part of the Arab Middle East; do we want to integrate into this region? And here my answer is very strongly negative.

Now, so that you don't misunderstand me, if the Arabs insist on loving us--fine, bad taste should not be punished. But if they don't for the next few hundred years, then they don't. And we have little interest in integrating culturally in this region. You can't imagine that they would seek to integrate into our way of life and adopt values we cherish. When you look at 300 million Arabs and six million Jews, you're speaking of us integrating into their culture. And I don't see anything appealing, and more important, most Israeli Jews don't see much that is appealing, in the values and cultural priorities of the Arab mainstream.

Let us spell out the politically incorrect and therefore most important thing: what we have here is one society that succeeded in meeting the challenges of the modern world, and one that failed. The Arab world has failed in the last 200 years. You have spoken about how the Jews integrated into Arab culture in Spain in the Middle Ages, and I'm delighted they did. But today the Arabs cannot offer us an Arab culture in the traditional sense of the term, because this traditional Arab culture isn't there any more. In the meeting between traditional Arab culture and the West, the Arabs tried to change and failed to create a functioning symbiosis. Their old social order isn't there any more and the new culture they hoped for did not emerge.

On a personal note, the way of life you knew and cherished--and I understand why you cherished it because I find it fascinating myself--is gone. What you have today is a product of the failed intercourse between the old culture and the West. The Arabs are in limbo--neither here nor there. This insight is today widely accepted throughout the Arab world. But what is worse, the chances of the Arabs to get out of their present predicament are blocked by their refusal to benefit from the encounter with the West because they remember only the bad part. They don't have the cultural self-confidence that is needed to benefit from this encounter.

I reread toward our meeting today a fascinating presentation by the prime minister of India at his alma mater, Oxford University, on July 8, 2005. I took it from The Hindu. Dr. Manmohan Singh says we Indians suffered from your British colonialism and you exploited us, yes, but so many of the good things we have today we have learned from you. He is grateful: "What is significant about the Indo-British relationship is the fact that despite the economic impact of colonial rule, the relationship between individual Indians and Britons, even at the time of our independence, was relaxed and, I may even say, benign."

He says further, "Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian prime minister to assert that India's experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too. Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilization met the dominant empire of the day. These are all elements that we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well."

This kind of acceptance--you did many things we didn't like yet we also benefited; the ability not to blame all the ills of your society on colonialism and imperialism--is exactly the opposite of the attitude that the Arab mainstream has adopted. I don't see a way out for the Arabs very soon. They are not willing to meet the cultural challenge. I don't see any chances of Israel-Arab integration even if we have peaceful coexistence. The best we can hope for in the foreseeable future is peaceful coexistence where there is very little intercourse between us and them, where there is little we can offer each other, where they don't want what we can offer because that would threaten them, where the basic values that are important for us, everything Israelis are proud of in terms of values is not present in the mainstream of the Arab world, where there are some very impressive individuals there but they are not the mainstream. Therefore, I don't think this is where we should head at the moment. For now we have to disengage so that the frustrations will be relaxed, the fears put to rest, and maybe in future generations we can reconsider.


Somekh: That many in Israel despair of peace is an outcome of the fact that Israelis weren't informed as to how serious the conflict is. They assumed that when we had peace with the Arabs this would be the end of the conflict. This is not true. Our conflict is much deeper, much more psychological and cultural than merely about a piece of real estate. Therefore when the peace process started in 1977 and later in the 1990s, there was disappointment on the part of the Israeli public. Still, I'm not sure the Israeli public is an obstacle to peace. The public opinion polls, peace perceptions, etc., are not capable of reflecting the issues. But I'm afraid that the hard core of Israeli fanatics, who are not a negligible group but an entire ideology and large numbers of people who live in the West Bank and are all opposed to the very idea of peace with the Arabs, they want only to take land and exercise coercion. Since Rabin's assassination they have registered a great success. That's what frightens me above all: they are infiltrating the government and the army with their ideology, and I fear this will mean the end of the pragmatic policy followed by leaders like Ben Gurion since a long time ago: that we don't press hard, we are flexible, if there's an opening for peace we exploit it. These people won't allow us to do this.

Most of what you said about the Arabs is acceptable to me. I agree the Arabs blame others for everything that's wrong. I had an argument about this when I was in Egypt. In 1904 the Japanese defeated the Russians, who at the time were considered "the West". The Egyptians said then, look at the backward Japanese, how they developed themselves. I said to them, look at yourselves today, all these years later, how do you explain what happened, you are still in the Third World. Some Egyptians would of course acknowledge that Egypt didn't take itself seriously the way the Japanese did. But most would answer, Zionism has kept us back. You talk about a specific lagging industry and they would say, Zionism and imperialism. So I said, Zionism and imperialism departed from Egypt 30-40 years ago. How do you explain it? I go back to your argument that the Arabs cannot be depended on to lay the groundwork necessary for peace with us. I don't know if it will happen in the near or foreseeable future. But I can say that we have to prepare ourselves. We owe at least that to ourselves. The fact that, as you say, the Arabs are not ready does not have to discourage us from doing the work, thinking about peace.


Schueftan: One or two hundred years. . .


Somekh: No, I don't agree, it can't go on this way. At the moment I agree it doesn't sound very hopeful. The people who perpetrated 9/11 were intelligent people, engineers, yet they did what they did to make the West look less capable and hurt the West. We can't rely on the new generation since the Nasser era, I agree. But the one thing I don't agree with is your argument that we should turn our backs, that we don't need the Arabs for anything. It's not that we "need" them. They are simply here to stay. Regarding the cultural issue, I totally disagree with Dan Schueftan that Israel does not need Arab culture, that the latter is not a developed culture. True, science and philosophy are not the best today in the Arab world, to put it mildly. You can't learn much from them. But on the other hand I think Israeli culture needs interaction so it can develop its originality. The only way for Israeli culture to become original and different and special is to accept to be closer to our neighbors and not the opposite. I'm talking about the Arabic language. For example, none of our great writers knows Arabic. It's very sad. None of them could care less, high schools and universities don't teach Arabic as a major topic, and on this point I think it's essential that we engross ourselves in Arabic culture. We live in this region and we somehow have to find a way of learning Arabic.

I'm one of those who failed in this task. For 40 years I was involved with Arabic teaching in the university and the schools, I was a member of all the committees and never managed to change the situation. Nobody wants Arabic, it's not useful enough, it's better to know French. Why learn Arabic when there's nobody to speak to? How do we change this? I personally with others didn't succeed in having the Arabic language penetrate into Hebrew culture and daily life. Arabic is close to Hebrew. Together they can say something new. It's not symbiosis, which assumes one party is weaker than the other and can be influenced by it.

I differ regarding your order of priorities, because I believe that knowledge of Arabic and understanding Arab thought will create a proper respect for Arabic culture. Not knowing Arabic is a sign of disrespect on the part of the Jewish majority in Israel. True, speaking Arabic will not solve the political problem, but it will show we respect Arab culture and that is important. Then there are the benefits for Hebrew culture in and of itself. We are too dependent on western culture. Hebrew culture needs this kind of enriching element from Arab culture. Our writers would be more original knowing Arabic, it would give us an advantage over them, since other than Israeli Arabs the Arab world does not try to learn our language. I used to hear this argument all the time: Arabs don't come here, why should I go there? We don't have to operate according to the way the Arabs are operating. We need our own concepts. We want to be here and fight for our existence and will try by all means to reach peace with our neighbors.


Schueftan: In conclusion, three short comments. First, I don't know what will happen in 150 years. I'm saying I can't see change in the foreseeable future, and if a rapprochement does not come in the foreseeable future Israel can continue to flourish without it.

Second, I'm not sure there is a close link between the willingness to make concessions and peace and the subject we're discussing today. You will find few people who were as eager to engage on this romantic basis with the Arabs as Moshe Dayan. But he ignored the politically most important element--the new generation of the nationalistic urban elites--and promoted a modus vivendi with the more traditional elements that no longer reflected the aspirations of their society. Yet Dayan is responsible for integration with the Palestinians and promoted settlements in the populated heartland of the West Bank because he believed we could permanently cohabitate on the basis of this traditional modus vivendi. He argued that we shouldn't seek a territorial compromise but rather a functional compromise, where we will be in charge of the strategic defense of the area and can settle wherever we like and the Arabs will control their everyday life. Dayan, who had a good understanding of the Palestinian traditional way of life and spoke the language, created the settlements in their midst seeking to stay there forever.

On the other hand many Israelis, myself included, who want to leave the overwhelming majority of the West Bank and repartition Jerusalem, wish to avoid cohabitation with the Arabs. We seek separate entities and reject cultural and political integration. If the Arabs want, generations from now, to seek cultural intercourse with us, fine, but at least for the foreseeable future this is not necessary, not even desirable. So you can have people who advocate major concessions like myself, who don't want this kind of intimate interaction, versus people like Dayan who want it but impose themselves on the Arabs. The distinction, then, is not peace-lovers who seek integration versus hard-liners who reject it.

The third comment is the question of intimate interaction with another culture. Yes, I want it, but not in the Middle East. I want interaction with open western societies with which we share our core values. When you spoke about interaction with the local culture it's significant that you focused on the Arabic language. Would it be desirable for some interested individuals to learn Arabic to better comprehend a culture with a glorious past? Yes. But in terms of what a person needs in order to deal successfully with the modern world, Arabic is at the very bottom of my priority list, way below English, Spanish, German, French and Chinese. We know that it has nothing to do with political rapprochement. Now, should writers for whom the Hebrew language is very important learn Arabic in order to better understand Hebrew? Perhaps. But should Israel promote the idea that most Israelis should know Arabic? What for? What is important to a modern person that is today written in Arabic and not translated into English?- Published June 2007 © bitterlemons-dialogue.org


Sasson Somekh was born in Baghdad and has lived in Israel since age 17. He served as professor of Arabic literature in Tel Aviv University for 40 years. From 1996 to 1999 he headed the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. One of his major scholarly works is a study of Naguib Makhfuz's novels that appeared in 1973. He recently published an autobiography, Baghdad Yesterday.

Dr. Dan Schueftan is deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies at the University of Haifa. He studied contemporary Arab history; his books are about Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians and Israeli policies. He recently completed a study about the Arab citizens of Israel. He has advised Israeli decision makers and senior officials over the past 35 years.